Physiology

Publication Analysis 2005-2011
by Kathleen Gransalke, Labtimes 02/2014


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Photo: Wellcome Images/Fritz Kahn

Physiology research might have a long tradition in medicine but it doesn’t get old. Whether cell, neuro- or endocrine physiologists, they all contribute their share to widening our knowledge of our body’s functions. Danish physiology research stands out, in more than one way.

Probably for as long as people have been able to think, they have wondered about how their bodies function. Physiology is one of the oldest scientific disciplines with an experimental history dating back to at least the middle ages or even earlier. More than 100 years ago, physiological research was granted a very special acknowledgement when Alfred Nobel wrote in his will, “(the) interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: […] one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine...”

The first Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded in 1901 to Emil Adolf Behring for developing a serum therapy against diphtheria, which, according to the Nobel Prize jury, “placed in the hands of the physician a victorious weapon against illness and death”. It took three more years, however, before the first “real” Physiology Nobel Prize was awarded – to Ivan Pavlov, yes that’s the one with the drooling dogs. In 1904, he was honoured for his work on the physiology of digestion. Still today, physiology is part of the curriculum of every biology student. It should be mentioned, right from the start, that this physiology publication analysis focuses solely on animal physiology. Sorry, plant physiologists.

Major mergers with other disciplines

As everyone knows, with age comes not only wisdom but also certain problems. In physiology, there are mainly two issues. Many regard the discipline as out-of-date. Thus, its importance is gradually dissipating. Or it’s slowly and inexorably merging with other disciplines like cell biology. Especially the latter point didn’t exactly help us to create our tables. Where to draw the sharply bounded line in such a blurry field, was, once again, the most-frequently asked question during our analysis sessions.

Compiling the discipline’s expert journals, needed to measure the nations’ ‘physiological’ performance, was, however, a piece of cake. Web of Science, the database we use for this analysis, provided a comprehensive list of physiology journals, many of them from the sport sciences – physiology under extreme conditions, so to speak. As a side note, amongst the odd paper highlights we spotted in physiology journals published between 2005 and 2011 were: “Ancient Chinese medicine and mechanistic evidence of acupuncture physiology”, co-author is one of our top 30 most-cited authors, Bernd Nilius (8th), and “Kinematic and electromyographic analyses of a karate punch”, written by a group of Portuguese researchers.

European physiologists published about 30,000 articles in those expert journals altogether. Once again, topping the nations’ chart is England, with not less than 10,000 citations more than runner-up, Germany. England also boasts one of the best citations-per-article ratios (19.8); only one country did slightly better – physiology articles from Denmark received, on average, 0.2 citations more. This also contributed to securing the Nordic country a very good sixth place in the overall ranking.

Also on an international level, European physiologists don’t need to hide. US physiologists, for example, wrote an almost identical number of articles within our time frame. They, however, gathered a few more citations, as usual. Best of the rest: Canada, Japan, Australia and China.

Let’s switch from countries to people, to our most-cited physiologists in Europe. As already mentioned, differentiating between physiology and other disciplines, in particular cell biology, was one of the hardest tasks we had to cope with. Should we include only true physiologists or also cell biologists or molecular biologists with physiological tendencies? We decided to rely on institutional classification (whether our ranking aspirant works at a physiology institute or department) and on the researcher’s own judgement (whether he or she mentions physiology in his or her research interests or cv). In addition, we also accepted a scientist when he or she had published in comparatively many physiology expert journals, as defined earlier. In the case of clinical physiologists, we decided on a case-by-case basis.

Remarkably, our top 30 most-cited physiologists hail from 11 different countries. Most of them (7), work at German institutions, six in the UK and also five scientists from Denmark scored a place in the sun.

Many retractions for different reasons

Next, though, we have to broach a tender subject. Among our top 30, three researchers had to retract two or even more papers. The reasons behind the retractions are, however, not clear in all cases. Let’s begin with Frances Ashcroft’s (21st) retracted papers. While the retraction notice for a Journal of Neuroscience paper only mentions that the manuscript has been retracted “at the request of the authors”, a second paper from PNAS has been retracted because the undersigned authors (which conspicuously doesn’t include the paper’s first author) “discovered errors in some of the figures”. Three apparently isn’t Ashcroft’s lucky number: recently a third retraction appeared for a 2006 paper in Cell Metabolism, also because of “concerns with figures”.

More unauthentic figures and an investigation on the part of the University of Dundee are at the bottom of Benoit Viollet’s (10th) two retractions, from the FASEB Journal and Molecular Cell Biology. But it should be clarified that Viollet was not himself involved with the manipulations. Things are different with our third case. As we have reported in the last issue of Lab Times, the Danish Committees of Scientific Dishonesty recently found Bente Pedersen (6th) guilty of scientific dishonesty. She’s mainly charged with omitting information important for the interpretation of research results in six of her articles. At the moment, only two papers, written with the already convicted Milena Penkowa and not part of the investigation, have been retracted. One in the Journal of Physiology, for image re-use and manipulation, and another one in Experimental Physiology, also for image re-use. It goes without saying, that we subtracted the retracted papers from the scientist’s total citation number.

Other top 30 physiologists called attention to themselves not with retractions but with exciting research results, most of all, Florian Lang (1st) from the University of Tübingen. Lang is a text book cell physiologist and ‘channelogist’, studying, amongst others, the cell-volume sensitive serum- and glucocorticoid-inducible kinases, which activate ion channels like ENaC, TRPV5, Kv1.3 and GluR1. And Lang is not the only cellular physiologist among our top 30. In 8th place is Bernd Nilius, working on the TRP channel family of non-selective cation channels, together with Thomas Voets (23rd). Benoit Viollet (10th) is interested in the energy sensor AMP kinase, Frances Ashcroft (21st) studies the ATP-sensitive potassium channel and Alexei Verkhratsky (20th) and Fritjof Helmchen (28th) follow calcium signalling.

Channelogists and stimulators

Besides the channelogists, two other main areas in physiology research are neurophysiology and metabolic & endocrine physiology. One popular topic among neurophysiologists, including clinical neurophysiologists, is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. This non-invasive method used by, e.g., John Rothwell (3rd), Paolo Rossini (13th), Michael Nitsche (17th) and Hartwig Siebner (29th) induces weak electric currents in specific parts of a volunteer’s brain and helps to explore the thinking organ’s functioning and interconnections.

Some of the endocrine physiologists, in contrast, stand in the tradition of gospodin Pavlov. Jens Holst (2nd), Stephen Bloom (5th), Mohammad Ghatei (14th), for example, are interested in gut hormones and appetite regulation, obesity. Others, like Carlos Dieguez (12th) and Manuel Tena-Sempere (18th), investigate hormones important during puberty.

So, what will be the future of physiology research? Juleen Zierath (30th), chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine 2013, might have the answer. She’s Professor of Integrative Physiology – a sort of holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to study the body’s functions. At Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, physiologists named this new branch, according to the current trend of modern science vocabulary, physiomics. “Physiologists can now make the difference by going from genes to function, and that is what matters in life! Thus, physiologists are ready for the next challenge in science, (...) bringing our important discipline to the next level in the coming decades and beyond,” write, amongst others, René Bindels and Joost Hoenderop, who with 2,902 and 2,847 citations, respectively, just missed our top 30. So, calmly we can attest: the future is set and ready for physiology 2.0.


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